"When our coaching staff and our families moved here, we were just trying to give you the best we could give you every day," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "This group, we have all worked so hard for so long. It's a pretty empty feeling right now. But I hope when you walked away from your TV set, you were pretty proud of the way our kids played."
After reaching the Elite Eight last season, it looked like West Virginia had done it again. The Mountaineers rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit eerily equal to last year's second round NCAA Tournament win over another No. 2 seed in Wake Forest to tie it late and likely force overtime. But the hope for another storybook-style ending was erased when Texas' last-ditch 3-pointer swished through as time expired for a 74-71 win that ended what have become five fabled careers for WVU's seniors.
"We play for you," Beilein said. "We know how much this means to you, and I know a lot of you stayed up much later than you have for a long time. We tried with everything we had, but, as you could see, Texas is a very good team. LSU, who we played very competitively here, is a very good team. We are going to do everything we can to keep this tradition going."
West Virginia was no more viewed a loser now, however, than it had been after beating rival Pitt on an emotional Senior Night and collecting easy wins over Southern Illinois and Northwestern State in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The crowd erupted when WVU got off the bus, and screamed for favorite players. Yet there was also an air of solemnity, a revered respect for what had transpired, both against Texas and in the last four seasons.
"This has been the best time of my life here, all the memories," Patrick Beilein said. "It was made possible by you fans just hanging with us. You mean a lot to us."
Said Johannes Herber: "This really means a lot to us. The four years here have been really great, and it's hard to believe it will be over soon and it is over basketball-wise now. We had so many people tell us that they were proud of us how we represented the school and the state."
Indeed, perhaps no class better embodied West Virginia's underdog spirit like this one. It came in four years ago with Beilein after a comedic 20-loss season and a flopped coaching hire. But, just eight games into the season, it had already knocked off then-No. 8 Florida and Tennessee in a shocking 7-1 start to begin the era.
"Even when we lose you are still behind us," J.D. Collins said. "I have had an absolutely amazing time here, and I want to thank you for that."
It was Collins that jump-stared last season's run on a last-second coast-to-coast layup at St. John's. WVU defeated Providence, Boston College and Villanova before falling to Syracuse in the final. It then beat Creighton, Wake Forest in the double-over time game – called among the finest collegiate contests in the last 20 years – and Bobby Knight-led Texas Tech, all while winning the hearts of America and introducing "Pittsnogled" as a new phrase.
"I want to thank you for supporting us the last four years, even though we weren't that good the first few years," Kevin Pittsnogle said. "There have been hard times and good times like now. Hopefully the team can pull it out next year."
There have been bigger miracles before, like the one we witnessed the last four seasons. It culminated with a second straight trip to the Sweet 16 before the loss to Texas. Yet perhaps, as some players noted, there are not words for a team that turned a 20-loss season into consecutive years with 20-plus wins; For a team that had two first-team All-Big East players in Pittsnogle and Gansey, something only two Mountaineer players had ever done before – and never as teammates. And for a unit that grew closer than any team in WVU history.
"We like playing together so much, that it's not the loss, though that hurts, but the ending of this family, so to speak," John Beilein said. "We have to move forward and keep on going. There are a lot of teams going through what we are right now, like Duke and Gonzaga, but I am not sure their fans are as appreciative."
Maybe especially so of Pittsnogle, who finished as the top 3-point shooter at WVU – he made 253 – and sixth leading scorer in school history. Beilein, needing 13 points entering the Texas game for 1,000, scored 14 to become the only walk-on to accomplish the feat. He finished second to Pittsnogle with 242 career 3-pointers in a program in which no other player has more than 200. Herber is the career starts, consecutive starts and minutes played leader. And Gansey finished with what would be top 10 scoring average if he had played four years.
"We just thank you for everything," Gansey said. "It has been very special for me."
And for us.